What if... Carter had killed the rabbit

"I never did hit the rabbit," President Carter earnestly told the sniggering press corps in Plains, Georgia. "I just splashed water towards him." It was August 1979, and in one of the more bizarre moments of a frankly very eccentric presidency, Jimmy Carter had just been attacked by an aquatic "killer rabbit" while on holiday in his home state. Worried about upsetting the animal rights and environmental lobbies, Carter denied reports that he had hit the rabbit with his paddle. He had just flicked water at it, he said - an admission that, for many people, merely confirmed his image as a pathetic weakling. But if the president had done the manly thing and brutally beaten the rabbit to death with his paddle, history might well have turned out very differently.

It was only a couple of months later, after all, that Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran, humiliating the United States in the eyes of the world. Ayatollah Khomeini had closely studied Carter's battle with the rabbit, and drew the appropriate lesson. "Why should we be afraid?" he told American television. "Carter knows that he is beating an empty drum. Carter does not have the guts to engage in a military action."
Bashing the rabbit on the head might have lost Carter a few votes with the tree-huggers. But it would surely have deterred the Iranian militants from seizing American hostages. And in that case, Carter's presidential campaign in 1980 would have gone very differently. As it was, his race with Governor Ronald Reagan remained excruciatingly close until the very last moment, when Carter's failure to secure the hostages' release after exactly 365 days finally counted against him. But without the hostage crisis, Carter might well have won re-election - sending Reagan into immediate retirement.

No Reagan, no 1980s, at least not as we remember them. Instead, Jimmy Carter makes energy and the environment his top priorities for his second term, turning the US into the world's leading green nation, with gas-guzzling cars banned outright. He brokers a new peace deal between Israel and the Arabs. However, the special relationship does not survive his blazing rows with Margaret Thatcher.

And not only does Carter cement his reputation as one of the great American presidents, but he becomes a major cultural figure, setting the tone for the decade. Men and women everywhere rush to copy what Jimmy and Rosalynn are wearing. Austerity is in; the cardigan is the fashion statement of the decade. And who can ever forget seeing Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street, playing a bond trader who gives it all up to build houses for the homeless? What was his slogan again? Ah yes: "Green is good."

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England